Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Historiated initial of Guda
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    In this self-portrait, found in the twelfth century manuscript MS.Barth. 42, Guda,depicts herself within the confines of an initial letter D. The colors are simplified and feature mostly red, yellow and green. In addition to the colorful background, there are small ornate details and patterns. Guda, herself, is situated in the center of the illustration. She has one hand raised, palm facing outward, and the other holds a curved banner of text that arcs along the shape of the capital D letter. This text banner contains her name, identity and role: "Guda a sinner [and] a woman wrote and painted this book." Guda is wearing a green headscarf and lightly decorated red robe. The rest of the space is filled with acanthus leaves, decorative flourishes and blocks of color. In analyzing what her position as a scribe and illuminator offered in terms of agency, we can gain insight into how and where women might find opportunities to create art and gain recognition for doing so.

    This manuscript was written, illustrated and rubicated by Guda. Because she did this work, she was likely also in control of its layout. The texts within the manuscript were religious sermons and homilies. Each new section was prefaced with a large initial letter, usually in red. Following these large red letters were typically titles that indicated the religious season or year to which the sermon or homily related. These titles were also written in the same red color. Guda likely highlighted the sections in this manner to help readers locate the text or story they wanted with more ease. Additionally, these features acted in place of other commonly used locating tools like a table of contents or citations. The intended audience for this manuscript was likely other nuns, like Guda herself, who would listen to the homilies read aloud during meals or reflect on them in private. In using these visual cues over more textually based ones, Guda may be indicating an organizational preference shared by other women during this period.

    There is little background information about Guda herself. She was a German nun active in the second half of the twelfth century who is known for the scribal work done in this manuscript. While she is clearly a well-trained scribe, as the image proves, this manuscript is the only one which can be attributed to her. Suzanne Lewis argues that Guda casts her self portrait in the form of an episcopal seal, conferring authority on her words. Her figure embodies a narrative of redemption linked to the adjacent homily text (David's victory over Goliath) with Guda's extended right hand (palma) recalling the "victory prize." The banderole ending in acanthus leaves further extends the idea of the celebratory wreath. This narrative also recognizes the ongoing work that Guda is doing to create the pages, work which gives her hope for salvation.

    Female scribes were active in the twelfth century, particularly in monasteries. Women worked independently (as Guda did in this manuscript), with each other, and sometimes in partnership with male scribes. Female scribes in monasteries generally received far more opportunities and visibility than women in secular workshops. Their manuscripts were frequently displayed and stored in monastic libraries alongside works produced by their male counterparts. Scribal work, in addition to textile production, were some of the primary ways women could take part in artistic creation and receive the appropriate recognition for such work.

    Scribes often placed a signature of some kind in their work in order to indicate authorship of the item. This was even done within the religious context, despite the tendency there to reject attention and the vanity that might be associated with such an act. In this self-portrait of Guda, her name included in the illustration within the sweeping banner of text, was one of the first documented instances where a woman constructed a signature of this kind. Here the concern in the self-portrait was to make her work in this manuscript known as part of her spiritual development. We can see this concern for religious understanding in comparing the depiction of Guda with her representation of the Virgin Mary in the same manuscript. The two illustrations show the figures in the same position and with the same gestures. The only clear difference between the two is the inscription in the curved banner Guda holds in her portrait, while the Virgin Mary’s banner is blank since her words appear in the accompanying homily. In modelling her self-portrait after the Virgin's assumption, Guda hopes to attain forgiveness for her sins. This act of asserting authorship validates her spiritual progress in a way that some women were able to achieve.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Artists Guda, Scribe and Illuminator Manuscripts- Production Nuns Portraits Scribes and Scriptoria Self Women Artists Women in Art Women Scribes
  • Geographic Area: Germany
  • Century: 12
  • Date: 1150-1200
  • Related Work: Guda, Assumption of the Virgin, Frankfurt am Main, MS Barth 42, fol. 196r.
    Digitized manuscript, Frankfurt am Main, MS Barth 42. See decorated initials on folios 4v, 23v, 85v, 94r, 171r and 214v.
    Claricia, thought to be an artist's self-portrait, ca. 1200, Baltimore, Walters Art Museum, W.26, fol. 64R.
    Self-portrait of Gisela von Kerssenbrock (detail), among a group of Cistercian nuns, Golden Gradual, end of the 13th c., Diözesanarchiv Osnabrück, Inv.-Nr. Ma 101. Full manuscript page, Wikimedia Commons.
  • Current Location: Current Location: Frankfurt am Main, Staats- und Universitäts-bibliothek, MS Barth 42, fol. 110v
  • Original Location: Middle Rhine region, Germany
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Manuscript illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paints; Colored ink
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 36.5/24/
  • Inscription: "Guda peccatrix mulier scripsit et pinxit hunc librum" (Guda a sinner [and] a woman wrote and painted this book)
  • Related Resources:

    Beach, Alison I.Women as Scribes: Book Production and Monastic Reform in Twelfth-Century Bavaria. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

    Bleeke, Marian, Jennifer Borland, Rachel Dressler, et al. "Artistic Representation: Women and/in Medieval Visual Culture." A Cultural History of Women in the Middle Ages. Edited by Kim M. Phillips. Pages 179-213.

    Kauffmann, Martin. "Decoration and Illustration." The European Book in the Twelfth Century. Edited by Erik Kwakkel and Rodney Thomson. Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pages 43-67.

    Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. "Guda et Claricia: deux 'autoportraits' féminins du XIIe siècle." Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire 19 (2004): 159-163.

    Lewis, Suzanne. "Narrative, Narratology, and Meaning." A Companion to Medieval Art: Romanesque and Gothic in Northern Europe. Second edition. Edited by Conrad Rudolph. Wiley Blackwell, 2019. Pages 147-169.

    Mariaux, Pierre Alain. "Women in the Making: Early Medieval Signatures and Artists’ Portraits (9th–12th c.)." Reassessing the Roles of Women as "Makers" of Medieval Art and Architecture Edited by Therese Martin. Vol. 1. Brill, 2012. Pages 393-427.

    Warinner, Christina and Alison Beach. "Anonymous was a Woman: Illuminating the Writing and Art of Religious Women in the Middle Ages. In Situ Spring 2020: 11–18. Available open access.

    Winston-Allen, Anne. "Guda: Frankfurt am Main, Stadt- und Universitatsbibliothek, MS Barth 42." Repertorium of Manuscripts Illuminated by Women in Religious Communities of the Middle Ages. Available open access.